John gone, p.22
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       John Gone, p.22

           Michael Kayatta
 

  Chapter 18

  “Do you believe in God, Ronika?” John asked, clinging to her waist from the back of his scooter. They were on their way back to her apartment to pack some clothes and equipment before leaving for Longboard Key. John had told Ronika of his mother’s offer for her to stay with them until the ordeal was over, and the news had made her overwhelmingly pleased.

  Ronika was piloting the scooter again for their ride home. John didn’t want to mention it, but lately he’d been feeling less resolute against the watch. Jumps had been taxing before, but the last two in particular had taken a real and visceral toll on him.

  “God?” Ronika called back to John over the rushing wind. “Thinking about taking up an ancient Egyptian belief system?”

  John laughed. “No, no, I was just curious. We’ve never talked about it before.”

  Ronika thought for a few moments before answering. “Einstein once said to imagine a child walking into a big library filled with books written in different languages. The kid can’t read or understand anything she sees there, but she knows that somebody wrote them. She also doesn’t understand how the books got there, but knows that somebody brought them, and that somebody ordered them on the shelves.

  “Einstein said that’s how humans are with the concept of God. Yes, the library is there--you’re standing in it--but no matter how long you sit there looking at it, you’ll never have the brainpower to understand anything other than the fact that’s it’s been organized by someone, even if we don’t get exactly how. The lack of chaos proves the existence of something greater than ourselves, but doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding what it actually is. I guess that’s how I look at it, too.”

  “I would have also taken a simple yes or no,” John said. They both laughed.

  “Even science nerds don’t like yes or no questions,” she replied.

  “Why are people always quoting Einstein anyway?” Kala asked.

  “Something about E=mc2, I think,” Ronika said.

  “Which, incidentally, is wrong,” Kala grumbled.

  Ronika pulled the scooter up to her apartment. As she dismounted, John slipped from its back, knocking the scooter to the ground on top of him. Ronika ran to him and offered her hand to help him up. Once safely back on his feet, she carefully lifted the scooter back onto its wheels.

  “Are you okay?” she asked.

  “Yeah, sorry,” John replied. “Just lost my footing for a second. I’m fine.”

  John brushed the dirt from his jeans and walked toward Ronika’s door. She unlocked it for him and watched him move straight past the entrance to her couch where he flopped his body lifelessly upon its cushions.

  “Tired?” she asked.

  John leaned his head back and closed his eyes. “Just worn out.”

  “I’ll just be a second, okay?” she said. “Let me grab some things and unhook my equipment. I can hook it up to your machine once we get to your place, right?”

  John muttered something into the pillow beneath his head as Ronika disappeared back into her room.

  “John,” Kala said.

  “I know what you’re going to say,” John replied, his eyes drooped closed. “I know, I know.”

  “I understand your frustration at what’s happening, but this is like a shot at the doctor. You can sit there and squirm as much as you like, but you can’t leave the office until you deal with the prick.”

  “And you’re that prick, huh?”

  “Actually no, my lab is the prick. I know you don’t want to hear it, but it’s the only way to save us both.”

  “I thought we agreed not to talk about this anymore.”

  “Your body is degrading, damn it!” Kala yelled. “The next jump may kill you.”

  “Yeah? And why do you care? Are you trying to protect me or your own escape plan?”

  “Both! Listen to me, even if you survive, you’re in no condition to run from the Advocates. Think about how hard it was back at full strength! Now you’re banged up, bruised and broken, passing out three times a day uncontrollably.”

  “I can manage.”

  “Do you not think it odd that they never showed up for you in the desert? Something is happening, John. It’s getting dangerous ... and it was dangerous before.”

  “Maybe they gave up.”

  “Highly unlikely,” Kala said. “Not giving up is commandment one for them. This game is over. It’s time to end this. You need to leave denial!”

  “We just left de Nile,” John said airily.

  “Great, now you’re getting punchy,” Kala grumbled. “Listen to me while you have the wits about you to understand. This is the time for decisions, John, right here, right now. It is beyond unwise to risk a final jump. There’s too much at stake for you to senselessly try to enjoy a final twelve hours of freedom. Do you want to see your mother and Ronika again? Waiting a few years is better than never being with them again.”

  John lifted his head and lightly slapped at his cheeks with his hands. He shook his head side to side and opened his eyes. “I’m feeling better,” he said.

  “If you aren’t lying, it’s temporary,” Kala replied.

  John took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said. “You’re right.”

  “That was never in question,” Kala stated. “The question is whether or not you’ll finally take my advice.”

  “What if you’re lying to me?”

  “Lying about what?”

  “About me dying,” John replied. “What if on the last jump, the watch would just teleport without me attached to it, or something? Someone before me had to have gotten it off somehow, and they didn’t have your special little tool.”

  “True,” Kala said, “but assuming the person before you was who I think it was, then that person is highly intelligent and probably figured out an alternate solution. No offence.”

  “That still doesn’t address whether or not you’re lying.”

  “This is true,” Kala admitted. “All I can say is that I’ve lied about nothing thus far, and other than an admittedly strong motive, you have no reason to think that I’m telling you anything but the truth. I’m not a ‘bad guy,’ John; I’m just one more casualty of this awful situation. All I want is my freedom. You don’t even have a concept of what thirty years is yet at your age. I think I’ve been fair with you thus far.”

  “You have,” John admitted. He dropped his head to the cushion behind him. He dreaded what he knew he was about to say. He’d been dreading it since pulling out the watch’s knob for the first time. “Alright. I’ll do it.”

  “Good. Finally,” Kala said. “Do you remember the numbers to position the hands or do you need me to give you them again?”

  “I’ll need them again, but not yet. I want to explain my choice and what’s going to happen to my mom and Ronika at the same time. We’re heading over to my mom’s place now. I’ll tell them, then I’ll get the numbers from you, and then I’ll set the watch before the next jump. Alright?”

  “Fair,” Kala said quietly. “I hope you can see that this is a wise decision that you’ve made.”

  Ronika came back into the room a moment later and slid onto the couch next to John.

  “I’m ready,” she said.

  “So am I,” John replied.

  John and Ronika pulled up to his short, blue house by the sea half an hour later. Because Ronika had to drive, John had been recruited to wear her large pink backpack, stuffed to its seams with clothing and gadgetry. The backpack was taller than John was, rising above his head at least fifteen inches. Its extra height made the straps strain against his shoulders as the wind pushed against it. He’d told Ronika that he felt like a poor version of the Beverly Hillbillies. She hadn’t understood the reference.

  John dismounted the scooter and groaned as he lifted the bag from his back to hand to Ronika.

  She took the pack from him and easily whipped it around onto her back. “Wimp,” she joked past a quick smile.

 
; They made their way quietly across the dew-dampened lawn to the front of his house, surprised to find its door half open.

  John looked back at the driveway and saw his mother’s small sedan still parked there. “That’s weird,” he said quietly to himself. “But I guess she’s still here.”

  “Mom?” he said loudly, dropping a foot into the house. There was no answer. “Hello?” he called again.

  Ronika slid past him and was the first to notice the living room. She stood still in the doorway as she scanned the scene, her motionless body blocking the entryway.

  “What is it?” John asked. He looked to Ronika and followed her eyes to the room in front of them. He ran past her.

  Signs of struggle were obvious. The small wooden coffee table in the center of the room had been knocked onto its side and the TV Guide magazines that had been stacked on top of it were now strewn across the floor, looking as though they’d been stepped upon. The large couch behind the table was standing firmly in place, but a large, damp, brown stain, probably tea, was splattered across its left cushion next to where John’s mother usually sat. The television across the room was unbroken, but turned to the side and moved to the edge of its stand as if someone had hastily slammed into it. Three small blots of blood were settling into the carpet beneath it.

  “Mom?” John yelled, growing more panicked than before. Ronika’s eyes welled with tears as she looked around the room, hearing the fear in John’s cry.

  “They took her!” he yelled, turning back to Ronika, his chest huffing in and out. “Those assholes must have taken her. Why would they do that? How did they find her? She has nothing to do with this!”

  “Kala!” he yelled at the watch. “Where is she? Where is this company you were telling us about? We have to go after her. They can’t have gotten far.” He began to pace back and forth, taking only one step each way before turning again. He repeated the motion over and over, fuming anger and fear from his body with each heavy step. The sudden, jerky movements made him dizzy and the quick, sharp breaths churning in and out of his lungs made it worse.

  “I don’t know, John,” Kala said in quiet shock. “I don’t know why they would take her anywhere, let alone where they would take her. I could understand them questioning her about you, maybe--if they could even find this place--but kidnapping her? I just wouldn’t know what the point was.”

  “To get to me, to find me. To make me come to them,” John said sharply.

  “If they knew you were coming, then why wouldn’t they just wait for you here? Why try something so theatrical and risky?” Kala replied.

  “I don’t know!” John yelled. “Stop being so damn logical!”

  “John,” Ronika said softly and slowly, “I don’t think they took her anywhere.”

  “Of course they--” It was then that he saw one part of one side of a foot resting by a chair in his mother’s bedroom down the hall. The rest was hidden from his view behind the corner of the doorway.

  John stopped pacing and closed his mouth. He leaned slowly to his side toward the hallway, revealing a wider view of the foot he’d seen and the leg to which it was attached. He saw the glint of what seemed to be a thin metal wire around the leg’s ankle, binding it to the chair leg. Everything in his narrow view was painted in blood, and nothing was moving. The foot, he knew, belonged to his mother.

  John closed his eyes and brought his hand up to his mouth. Ronika and Kala remained ghostly quiet as John slowly inhaled. He released the first breath quickly, making room for another.

  At first, the air he breathed quivered him, as if a cold snap had rushed suddenly through the front door behind them. He could hear nothing but the rhythmic sound of air entering and exiting his body; it was the noise of raking leaves. With each breath he took, John’s breathing shook him less and less until finally not shaking him at all. With the quaking ended, he opened his eyes and dropped his hand back down near his waist and walked slowly toward the bedroom.

  Ronika watched the scene from behind John’s couch, adhered in place, frightened to move. As John advanced toward his mother down the hallway, time slowed. The room melted and changed, morphing and reforming into scenes from her memory.

  She was suddenly sitting alone on a small metal chair in a hospital waiting room. She was in her apartment’s galley kitchen, halving her favorite recipe to cook for one. She was lying in bed, watching the digital clock on her nightstand for hours as the seconds and minutes changed.

  She never saw her father’s death, only those moments after when she’d first noticed the solitude it had brought her. She witnessed only those moments that had haunted her, and haunted her still, reminding her of the gaping hole that tore across her days.

  John reached his mother’s bedroom and closed the door behind him. The sound of the door against its frame shattered Ronika’s visions and brought the space back to John’s living room.

  Ronika washed over the back of the couch like putty and ended prone across its cushions, her head in her arms and crying. She cried for her own loss, but mostly for John’s, and those moments of remembrance that were sure to follow him every single day after this one.

  She wept for ten minutes more until John came back to the room, wet-faced and quiet. She did her best to wipe the fluid from her eyes, sit straight, and be strong for her friend. The charade was transparent, even to Ronika, but she knew that someone had to try.

  “She ... ” Ronika began.

  “She’s gone,” John replied solemnly.

  “How ... ” Ronika mustered, “How bad was--”

  “She’s in one piece,” John answered. “But it did look like, well, her fingers were--”

  “Someone was asking her some questions,” Kala worded for him. “And, it appears that she wasn’t interested in answering them.”

  Ronika bit down on her arm, understanding his implication. She looked at John’s dead expression, then spied a tissue, carefully folded, in his right hand.

  She dropped her forearm from her bite, leaving small indentations in the skin behind it. “What is that?” she asked, gesturing at the tissue.

  “I don’t know,” John said. “She was holding it.”

  “She left you a note,” Ronika said optimistically. “What does it say? Wait, sorry; you don’t have to read it now, or at all, or to me. You know. It’s yours.”

  “It’s okay,” John said. “I’d like to know. It’s just the last thing she’ll say to me, and I didn’t want to be looking at what happened to her when I read it.”

  John opened the tissue and bit down on his lip. Ronika watched his breathing weigh heavier as his eyes panned across the note, shaking and convulsing again. His eyes must have run across the words five, ten, a hundred times. A small stream of blood ran down from his mouth from where his tooth pressed against his lip.

  “It’s not from her,” he finally said. “It’s from them.”

  Ronika sprung from her seat and slunk up behind John. Slowly embracing him from behind, she looked over his shoulder at the note. It had been written with his mother’s eyeliner.

  SEE YOU SOON.

  John crumpled the tissue and threw it to the ground. He lightly removed Ronika’s hands from around him and left the house by its front door. She waited a few minutes in the living room before following him out.

  She found John sitting against the wall of his small, bricked front porch, arms crossed around his knees and staring out ahead of him to the darkness of the road past the lawn. She sat across from him in the same fashion, keeping silent.

  She wanted to help him, to find some magical combination of words that would ease his pain. She wished she knew anything about making this easier for him. She didn’t know what people were supposed to say and do now, as there’d been no one to have said or done anything for her when her own parent died.

  Except for John, she remembered. He was the only one. What did he say? I don’t even remember. That’s horrible.

  John finally spoke. “It’s
not the time for grief. I can’t shut down now.”

  Ronika sat quietly, worried that responding might lead his next decision. He needs to decide what to do now by himself.

  “I want to bury her, but it’s just not realistic. The neighbors will snoop soon, I’m sure. Then the police will come and take care of the body. Ronika, you can take the house. There’s only one thing for me to do now.”

  John stood, but only for a moment before his knees wobbled heavily, and he collapsed to the ground, breathing shallowly and suddenly unconscious.

  “John!” Ronika exclaimed. She moved over to him quickly and lifted his head from the welcome mat where it had fallen. She placed it in her lap and ran her fingers through his hair.

  “No!” Kala yelled, “Not now! You! Ronika, you have to put in the numbers while he’s out!”

  “This isn’t the time for your scheming!” she yelled back. “He just lost his mother! He’s unconscious!”

  “That’s the ‘thing,’ though. The numbers are the thing,” Kala tried to explain. “The one thing he said he had to do now. That was it!”

  “Forget it,” Ronika said. “I can’t believe you’d ask me to just screw him over. Especially now!”

  “Ronika, listen to me. Why do you think he said you could have the house? Does that make sense? And what else could he have been talking about when he said there was one thing to do?”

  “If that’s what he wanted then he would have told me,” she said.

  “But he just decided! Inside, right before he found his parent! He told me!” Kala protested.

  Ronika’s voice was cold and grim. “How convenient.”

  “You have to believe me,” Kala said, panicking. “Look at him! He can’t even control his consciousness anymore! He’s going to die. Even if you don’t believe me, you’re capable of coming to the same conclusion of inevitability. Put in the numbers, you must!”

  “No,” Ronika said quietly, looking down at John. “The only way I’m sure I’ll lose him is if I send him to you.”

  “You don’t--” Kala started frantically. Ronika took John’s hand and depressed the knob on the watch’s side, dispatching the hologram immediately.

  She stared down at John in the new quiet and began to cry again, raining her tears down onto his face like a storm.

  She moved her hand to his cheek and smoothed the water from his face. “I don’t want to leave you here,” Ronika said to him. “But if I don’t set up, I can’t give you Mouse on the next jump. I’d set up here, but ... ” She looked back toward the house. “I just can’t be here, John. Not alone. I can’t. I’m sorry. I need to leave so I can be with you.”

  Ronika stood and hooked her arms beneath John’s. She carefully pulled his body into the small foyer and leaned him against the wall there. Then she thought about the note he’d found in his dead mother’s hand. See you soon, it had read. What did that mean? she wondered. She realized that she couldn’t leave him alone here either.

  “Fine. We’ll stay, but we’re going back outside,” she told John. She lifted him again and brought him back outside to the porch. After propping him up in a seated position, she walked back inside.

  Ronika traveled to the kitchen and saw a box of teabags labeled Samurai Chai on the counter. There was a mug in the open cabinet above the sink. She reached up and took it, noticing an over-used Hang in There! below a picture of a dangling cat on its surface. She filled the mug with water, then poured it back out into the small instant boiler next to the refrigerator.

  While the water reached boiling point, Ronika reached for the box of tea bags. It was almost empty. She moved the last bag of Samurai Chai from the box into the mug and waited for the boiler to finish. Thirty seconds later, she emptied the bubbling water over the bag. While it steeped, she searched through the drawers beneath the countertops. Soon, she found what she was looking for, a large serrated knife.

  Four minutes later the tea was done, and she brought the mug and the knife back out to the front porch. She sat next to John, knife in one hand, mug in the other, and waited for 3:14.

 
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